Read the series.
This essay continues the previous post in which I began a list of benefits of studying mythology.
4. Learning to supplant
Not everyone will agree with my argument in Part 2 that redemptive analogies help pagan cultures adjust to the message of the gospel. James Davidson Hunter’s recent book To Change the World is just one example of how Christians have developed allergies to “redeeming culture” terminology. And speaking of Paul at Mars Hill, Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes,
Yes, Paul takes note of the altar to the unknown god, and yes, he quotes pagan poets. But in neither case is he “building a bridge”…. Paul does not find in the [Greek] poets some form of “redemptive analogy” he can use among a people who don’t acknowledge the authority of Scripture. He uses them to demonstrate that Athenian philosophy and culture are self-contradictory…. The poets lead him not to finding “common ground” with his hearers but to calling them to repentance on the basis of a scripturally revealed storyline of humanity.1
But this sounds like an either/or distinction that I think gives an incomplete picture. Yes, Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus. But he also used recognizable cultural mentifacts2 that the Greeks could relate to. This both/and construction is simply acknowledging that Paul called the Greeks to repentance by means of a language with which they were familiar.
For that reason I heartily applaud early Christians who made a deliberate effort to compete with the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus.3 Until the fourth century, Christians celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6, and Easter4 received a greater emphasis. But as the Arian heresy grew more prominent, concerned Christians shifted the focus to Christ’s deity, and His incarnation became a primary concentration. So in a sense, the celebration of Christmas on December 25 actually began as a massive thumbing of the nose at pagans. Since then, some have viewed Christmas as a syncretic sharing in a pagan holiday. But I see a public move to displace a usurper as a positive thing.
Moore is right that common grace gets “twisted and perverted by human rebellion,” but Christians have a duty to supplant twisted culture with something better. What the Fall has twisted, we must twist back with God’s power. Ed Veith explains that the Old English epic of Beowulf is an example of an attempt to supplant pagan mythological practices. “Christianity did not destroy the existing culture, but, as we see in Beowulf, it affirmed what was good in the culture. More than that, Christianity reformed the culture, striking against its moral failings, thus making it stronger.”5
Moreover, this twisting is completely compatible with evangelism. As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on Matthew 28, “Christianity should be twisted in [to the very core of society], that the kingdoms of the world should become Christ’s kingdoms.”
In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, dwarves hire Bilbo as a “thief,” but he is not really stealing so much as he is reclaiming stolen treasure. The gold and jewels were not Smaug’s to begin with. Augustine spoke of this re-usurping as “spoiling the Egyptians.” Just as the Israelites exited Egypt laden with Egyptian treasure, Christians have every right to take truthful elements from pagan culture. Truth that has been mined from God’s creation “must be removed by Christians” and “put back into the service of Christ.” Furthermore,
Any statements…which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them…. [A]ll branches of pagan learning contain not only false and superstitious fantasies and burdensome studies…, but also studies for liberated minds which are more appropriate to the service of the truth.6
Augustine believed that “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”7 Put another way, all truth is God’s truth.
I am not endorsing every single way that Christians go about “redeeming culture.” But learning to supplant is an important skill, and using pagan mythology is just one way that Christians in the past have learned to speak the language of their target audience.
5. Acknowledging the existence of the supernatural
A very important skill that children need to learn at an early age is recognizing that there is a world beyond this world—there are transcendent things that we cannot see. Granted, mythology is not the only vehicle to employ, but it is a useful tool in this regard. Fiction in general gets readers to imagine life outside of their own, but fantasy, fairy tales, myths, etc. go further in supposing the existence of some pretty crazy situations, and such stories are helpful in getting us accustomed to the fact that miraculous things do happen.
An ax head did float on water, and the sun did stand still. Water did turn into wine, and the loaves and fish did multiply. We really do believe that Jonah stayed in the belly of a whale for three days and came out alive, just as we really do believe that Jesus stayed in the belly of the grave for three days and came out alive.
It’s important that in a world that is still very much in a modernist mindset, we do not let then next generation turn into materialists. There is more to our universe than just science and matter. In fact, the things that really matter are the things that are not matter. For example, love, sacrifice, justice, forgiveness, and other metaphysical principles cannot be explained or measured in scientific terms. The supernatural is just as real as the natural.
We should not feel guilty for using mythology or magic to talk about supernatural events, any more than John Piper should feel bad for appropriating the term “hedonism.” Piper writes,
To the objection that the term hedonism carries connotations too worldly to be redeemed, I answer with the precedent of Scripture. If Jesus can describe his coming as the coming of a “thief” (Matthew 24:43-44); if he can extol a “dishonest steward” as a model of shrewdness (Luke 16:8); and if the inspired psalmist can say that the Lord awoke from sleep “like a strong man shouting because of wine” (Psalm 78:65), then it is a small thing for me to say the passion to glorify God by enjoying him forever is indeed Christian Hedonism.8
Similarly, it is a small thing to use magic to describe what God has done and is doing. N.D. Wilson explains this world is made out of a certain kind of words:
Magic words. Words spoken by the Infinite, words so potent, spoken by One so potent that they have weight and mass and flavor. They are real. They have taken on flesh and dwelt among us. They are us…. [God] sang a song, composed a poem, began a novel so enormous that even the Russians are dwarfed by its heaped up pages.
Kick a stone. There are no tricks here. There are no props, no prefabbed white rabbits. The magic is real…and if the Magician, the Poet, the Word, if the Singer were to stop His voice, I would simply cease to be.9
The supernatural facts—that this world came from nothing, that a snake spoke in a garden, that unseen powers battle in a very real spiritual war,10 that a virgin gave birth to a god-man, that we can be sons of God and co-heirs with that god-man—are nothing less than magical.
2 Abstract “things of the head,” as opposed to physical artifacts.
4 The etymology of Easter has its own controversy. The English church historian Bede claimed that Easter was derived from a vernal goddess, but it is also very likely that the early church chose a word related to east (in which direction we see the risen sun) to celebrate the risen Son.
6 On Christian Teaching (New York: Oxford, 2008), p. 65.
7 Ibid., p. 47.
8 Desiring God (Portland: Multnomah, 1996), p. 290.
9 Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), pp. 23-24.
10 E.g., Daniel 10, Ezekiel 28, Romans 8, Ephesians 6.